Laurie Garrett's memo to Newsday colleagues
2/28/2005 11:47:08 AM

Dear Newsday Friends and Colleagues,

On March 8th -- International Women's Day -- my leave of absence from Newsday ends. I will not be returning to the paper, largely because my work at the Council on Foreign Relations has proven to be the most exciting challenge of my life. But you have been through so much pain and difficulty over the last year, all of which I monitored closely and with considerable concern, that I don't want to disappear from the Newsday scene without saying a few words. Indulge me.

Ever since the Chandler Family plucked Mark Willes from General Foods, placing him at the helm of Times Mirror with a mandate to destroy the institutions in ways that would boost dividends, journalism has suffered at Newsday. The pain of the last year actually began a decade ago: the sad arc of greed has finally hit bottom. The leaders of Times Mirror and Tribune have proven to be mirrors of a general trend in the media world: They serve their stockholders first, Wall St. second and somewhere far down the list comes service to newspaper readerships. In 1996 I personally confronted Willes on that point, and he publicly confirmed that the new regime was one in which even the number of newspapers sold was irrelevant, so long as stock returns continued to rise.

The deterioration we experienced at Newsday was hardly unique. All across America news organizations have been devoured by massive corporations, and allegiance to stockholders, the drive for higher share prices, and push for larger dividend returns trumps everything that the grunts in the newsrooms consider their missions. Long gone are the days of fast-talking, whiskey-swilling Murray Kempton peers eloquently filling columns with daily dish on government scandals, mobsters and police corruption. The sort of in-your-face challenge that the Fourth Estate once posed for politicians has been replaced by mud-slinging, lies and, where it ought not be, timidity. When I started out in journalism the newsrooms were still full of old guys with blue collar backgrounds who got genuinely indignant when the Governor lied or somebody turned off the heat on a poor person's apartment in mid-January. They cussed and yelled their ways through the day, took an occasional sly snort from a bottle in the bottom drawer of their desk and bit into news stories like packs of wild dogs, never letting go until they'd found and told the truth. If they hadn't been reporters most of those guys would have been cops or firefighters. It was just that way.

Now the blue collar has been fully replaced by white ones in America's newsrooms, everybody has college degrees. The "His Girl Friday" romance of the newshound is gone. All too many journalists seem to mistake scandal mongering for tenacious investigation, and far too many aspire to make themselves the story. When I think back to the old fellows who were retiring when I first arrived at Newsday — guys (almost all of them were guys) who had cop brothers and fathers working union jobs — I suspect most of them would be disgusted by what passes today for journalism. Theirs was not a perfect world — too white, too male, seen through a haze of cigarette smoke and Scotch — but it was an honest one rooted in mid-20th Century American working class values.

Honesty and tenacity (and for that matter, the working class) seem to have taken backseats to the sort of "snappy news", sensationalism, scandal-for-the-sake of scandal crap that sells. This is not a uniquely Tribune or even newspaper industry problem: this is true from the Atlanta mixing rooms of CNN to Sulzberger's offices in Times Square. Profits: that's what it's all about now. But you just can't realize annual profit returns of more than 30 percent by methodically laying out the truth in a dignified, accessible manner. And it's damned tough to find that truth every day with a mere skeleton crew of reporters and editors.

This is terrible for democracy. I have been in 47 states of the USA since 9/11, and I can attest to the horrible impact the deterioration of journalism has had on the national psyche. I have found America a place of great and confused fearfulness, in which cynically placed bits of misinformation (e.g. Cheney's, "If John Kerry had been President during the Cold War we would have had thermonuclear war.") fall on ears that absorb all, without filtration or fact-checking. Leading journalists have tried to defend their mission, pointing to the paucity of accurate, edited coverage found in blogs, internet sites, Fox-TV and talk radio. They argue that good old-fashioned newspaper editing is the key to providing America with credible information, forming the basis for wise voting and enlightened governance. But their claims have been undermined by Jayson Blair's blatant fabrications, Judy Miller's bogus weapons of mass destruction coverage, the media's inaccurate and inappropriate convictions of Wen Ho Lee, Richard Jewell and Steven Hatfill, CBS' failure to smell a con job regarding Bush's Texas Air Guard career and, sadly, so on.

What does it mean when even journalists consider comedian John [sic] -- "This is a fake news show, People!" -- Stewart one of the most reliable sources of "news"?

It would be easy to descend into despair, not only about the state of journalism, but the future of American democracy. But giving up is not an option. There is too much at stake.

I would remind my Newsday colleagues that during the bleak period that commenced with the appointment of Willes, and persists today, some great journalism has been done at the paper. A tiny, dedicated team of foreign correspondents has literally risked their lives to bring readers fresh, often ground-breaking news from the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East. Newsday readers are on top of details about the sorry state of fiscal governance in Nassau County, scandals in Suffolk County, Bloomberg's plans for the west side of Manhattan, and the sad state of politics in Albany. We still have some of the best film and performing arts criticism in the country, an aggressive photo department, tough sports columnists, under-utilized specialty and investigative reporters and a savvy business section.

So what is to be done?

I have no idea what Tribune corporate leaders in Chicago have up their sleeves for Newsday, the LA Times, Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune and the other media outlets under their control. Despite rumors that are rife in the newsrooms, you are also in the dark. And you should remember that. During times of hardship as extreme as those we have experienced at Newsday it is easy to become paralyzed by rumors, unable to think clearly about the work at hand. After all, people have lost their jobs, and some were removed from the building by armed guards, with only moments' notice. Every Newsday employee is justified in his or her concern about just how lean Chicago plans to make the newspaper machine.

But rumors only feed fear, and personal fear is rarely stimulus for good journalism. Now is the time to think in imaginative ways. Salon and Slate have both gone into the black; in nations like Ukraine and South Africa courageous new forms of journalism are arising; some of the blogs that clog the internet are actually quite good and manage to keep politicians on their toes. Opportunities for quality journalism are still there, though you may need to scratch new surfaces, open locked doors and nudge a few reticent editors to find them. On a fundamental level, your readers desperately need for you to try, over and over again, to tell the stories, dig the dirt and bring them the news.

Les Payne has often correctly pointed out that Newsday's problems have never been rooted in the institution's journalism: Rather, they have been business issues. We have never been accused of fostering a Jayson Blair, a bozo who accepted $250,000 from the Bush Administration to write flattering stories, an investigative reporting team that relied on a single source for a series that smeared the life of an innocent man, acted as a conduit for the Department of Defense for weapons of mass destruction disinformation, or any of the other ghastly violations of the public trust that have recently transpired. Newsday's honor has, by its own accounts, been besmirched by a series of lies committed on the business/advertising/circulation side of the company. (And few news organizations have covered on its pages their own shortcomings as closely as has Newsday.) All of us have been forced to pay a price for those grievous actions. But nobody has charged that Newsday's journalistic enterprise has failed to abide by the highest ethical standards.

Newsday has always had more talent than it knew how to use. So go ahead, Talent: Show them your stuff. I'll be reading. (March 8th may be my last day as a Newsday employee, but it won't mark the end of my readership.)

I thank each and every one of you who have been my friends and colleagues since I joined Newsday in 1988. I hope that we will stay in touch over coming years. Make me regret leaving, Guys: Turn Newsday into a kick ass paper that I will be begging to return to.

Bye for now,
Laurie Garrett